Pioneering Mesopotamia scholar to receive one of University’s highest alumni honors

Former Oriental Institute researcher Piotr Steinkeller, PhD’77, named Alumni Medal winner

Renowned Mesopotamian scholar Piotr Steinkeller, PhD’77, has been named the 2019 recipient of the Alumni Medal, one of the highest alumni honors awarded by the University.

Dating to 1941, the award recognizes achievement of an exceptional nature in any field over an entire career. Past alumni winners include Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker, acclaimed writer Susan Sontag and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stephens.

Described as “arguably the most influential thinker on 3rd-millennium BCE Mesopotamian history of his generation,” Steinkeller was nominated for the award by colleagues, fellow scholars and students.

“When it comes to Assyriology, Steinkeller’s talents are unmatched. He is justly counted among a handful in this discipline worldwide that set the stage for the rest of us, and in contrast to his few peers, he stands alone in terms of the breadth of his interest and writing,” wrote one of his nominators. Another referred to Steinkeller as “a true pioneer, facing and most brilliantly treating many topics that had never been dealt with before.”

Steinkeller began his academic education at the Warsaw University, Poland, where he studied Mediterranean archaeology and Assyriology. He came to the United States in 1970 as the recipient of a Humanities Special Fellowship from the University of Chicago. He then pursued Assyriology at the Oriental Institute, receiving a PhD from the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations in 1977. From 1974–81 he was a research associate at the Oriental Institute, assisting mentor Ignace I. Gelb on a number of research projects. In 1981, he joined the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.

Steinkeller has authored, co-authored or edited 10 books and some 140 articles. His most recent books are History, Texts and Art in Early Babylonia: Three Essays (DeGruyter, 2017) and Babylonia, the Gulf Region and the Indus: Archaeological and Textual Evidence for Contact in the Third and Early Second Millennia BC (Eisenbrauns, 2017). Steinkeller is presently writing a book devoted to the history of Mesopotamia during the Late Uruk period (3500–2900 BCE), a formative phase of history during which cuneiform writing was invented, and the time when the nation’s socioeconomic and religious institutions acquired their essential shape.

The University of Chicago Alumni Board will present the Alumni Medal this autumn at the Alumni Medal Presentation and Professional Achievement Awards Ceremony.